“A different perspective”: Justice Mahmud Jamal on minority rights, bilingualism and the Supreme Court

Sitting in a towering red leather chair in a wood-panelled Ottawa office, Justice Mahmud Jamal recalled his first anxious times in this country as a 14-year-old immigrant.

“I remember the first day here very well. I was scared,” he told Radio-Canada in a recent interview, describing the journey that led him to the highest court in the country, first from Kenya to England, then to Edmonton in 1981 for the high court. school.

“I was scared for a lot of reasons. I left all my friends. I left a culture where I had spent my whole life. But at the same time, it was an opportunity to start life again.”

Coming from a modest family who moved halfway around the world in search of a better life, Jamal rose through the ranks of the Canadian legal world after graduating from McGill University’s Faculty of Law. He was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in July 2021.

It’s a position he hopes to use to protect the rights of minorities and other historically disadvantaged groups — something he wrote about when filing his application to serve on Canada’s highest court.

Jamal is the first person of color to be named to Canada’s highest court. He is also a member of a religious minority.

Jamal grew up a Muslim in the Ismaili community before converting to the Baha’i faith like his wife, who is an Iranian refugee.

He told Radio-Canada that his personal experience is an asset to the court, as are the personal experiences of each of his fellow Supreme Court justices.

“If you are a woman, if you are a man, even if you are a member of a minority, you bring your experience to work. I have experiences as a member of a visible minority, of a religious minority, so it gives a different point of view,” he said.

“That does not mean that I will decide all the causes in favor of minorities.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have a vacancy to fill after Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver retires on September 1. (Michel Aspirot/Radio-Canada)

Jamal conducted his interview with Radio-Canada entirely in French, a language he learned in Edmonton and perfected in Montreal.

“Obviously, in Montreal, there were a lot more opportunities to practice the language, but that was especially when I worked in a firm in Montreal for two summers. It was a completely French environment,” he says.

“Also, when I was working at the Quebec Court of Appeal for Judge [Melvin] Rothman, it was an opportunity to deepen my knowledge of French, especially with legal vocabulary.”

Jamal has made bilingualism a family value. His two sons will attend university in Montreal this fall.

“I never thought about the possibility that the French language would be useful for my legal work,” he said.

“But that’s the same thing I tell my kids, bilingualism, it’s a useful asset, you never know when it will come in handy for the job. I encourage them to learn the language, to immerse themselves in Quebec culture.”

“People who have the skills…know they have to be bilingual”

Chief Justice Richard Wagner said Jamal’s appointment in 2021 confirmed that the federal government can find judges from diverse backgrounds who are also bilingual.

“We mentioned that maybe we’re missing out on quality people who aren’t able to be bilingual. Well, that’s not a problem,” Wagner said in a separate French interview.

“People who have the skills and who aspire one day to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada know that they must be bilingual.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will soon have a vacancy to fill on the bench. Supreme Court Justice Michael Moldaver is scheduled to retire on September 1.

Although Supreme Court justices are not required by law to be bilingual, Wagner has been promoting the idea of ​​a fully bilingual judiciary for several years. He says it’s a matter of “respect” for francophones.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner says he thinks the appointment of Mahmud Jamal shows the court can have judges who are fluent in French and come from diverse backgrounds. (Michel Aspirot/Radio-Canada)

“I think we’ve made progress over the last few years and we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t skimp,” he said. “We really need to recognize the importance of all judges being functionally bilingual on the court.”

The Liberal government tabled Bill C-13, an act to modernize the Official Languages ​​Act. Among other things, it would require that all future Supreme Court justices be bilingual.

Neither Jamal nor Wagner would comment on cases likely to go to the Supreme Court. One such issue could be Quebec’s law on the secularism of the state — still sometimes called Bill 21 — which is currently before the Quebec Court of Appeal.

Wagner said all candidates for a Supreme Court position are first assessed by an independent committee based on their professional qualifications.

“Even if the nine judges often come from different provinces, with different languages ​​and different professional backgrounds, different life experiences, different ethnic origins, we come here with the same Canadian values… which are the same in Quebec or elsewhere in Canada. of the country, in terms of the values ​​of independence, impartiality and respect for institutions,” he said.